Sunday, June 10, 2012

Awake among the laurels

I've hardly slept in three days. There were captured naps ... five minutes here, ninety minutes there. But eastern time has not been kind to me ... my natural bedtime occurs just before sunrise. Combined with a tight flight schedule, a predawn race start, nighttime heat, and a serious case of the jimmy legs, the relief of unconsciousness has eluded me. Now on the third night I've finally surpassed fatigue and entered that waking dream state, where everything takes place behind a white veil and a few clicks off real time. It's a beautiful place, steeped in nostalgia.

We entered Pennsylvania by way of Pittsburgh. It was well after midnight in this region. This is the first time I've been east of the Mississippi in nearly ten years, and I forgot that it's kind of different out here. The freeways aren't so overbuilt. You have to dig deep into some winding country roads to get anywhere, even near cities. Farmhouses built in the 1860s are places where people live, not historic landmarks. And the hills. Oh, the hills. As we drove through the empty streets, I imagined myself back on a loaded touring bicycle, circa 2003. "I rode so many hills just like these," I told Beat. "We crossed the state line just a little north of Pittsburgh and then veered north into the Alleghenies. The Rocky Mountains were a piece of cake compared to this region. The overall elevation gains are smaller so they don't bother with switchbacks. It felt like 15 percent grades were the norm."

I didn't recognize the race directors right away, even though I've looked them both in the eyes during one of the darker moments in my life. People really do look markedly different when they're rested, clean, wearing fewer layers, and projecting an air of excitement instead of pity. Tim Hewitt looked outright strange in a cotton T-shirt and khaki shorts, and Rick Freeman was way more exuberant  than I remembered. The last time I saw them was at Yentna Station, Alaska, during the 2009 Iditarod, when I dropped out of the race with frostbite. Man, was that a depressing morning. Tim's voice of wisdom is still burned in my consciousness, and thanks to the trials of the 2012 Iditarod, he bonded with Beat as well. It felt like a little life victory to meet again under much more pleasant circumstances, surrounded by the brilliant greens of Pennsylvania hill country in the summertime, and Tim joking lightheartedly about the insanity he's experienced during his six walks to Nome. In the background, there was the nervous matter of that little 70-mile race Tim and Rick invited us to run. The Laurel Highlands Ultra. Oh, that.

This may enter my memory as my favorite running experience yet — the last eight miles of that brutal trail. There were rocks, so many rocks. I shuffled over them, stubbed my toes on them, rolled my ankles around them, tripped over them, vomited on them. The race had its expected ups and downs, and by mile 62 I was hunkered down at the last aid station, savoring a bowl of potato soup and contemplating the long descent in front of me. I wasted as much time as I could sipping ginger ale, changing the batteries in my headlight, and even arranging my pack before I returned to the now-total darkness of the forest canopy. The thing I wanted most in the world was sleep, and the only thing that was going to get me there were my aching feet. The only thing in my way seemed nearly insurmountable at the time — eight miles of rolling, rocky descending, which I suck at even when I'm fresh and strong. But when I have 100 kilometers behind me and the better part of 48 hours without sleep, at least I become a little more fearless. I pulled out the trekking poles I brought as climbing aids and thought — "Screw it. I'm going to run."

It took a few hundred yards of shuffling to work past the aches in my feet and knees, but soon I started charging down the trail, planting my poles for balance and sometimes outright vaulting over boulders. The movements somehow fell into place; I was dancing across the rocks, inexplicably without planting my face into the trail, and the motion felt amazing. I imagined myself as a mountain goat, using my four legs to float down impossible terrain. Exuberance translated to energy, the poles made me invincible, and I felt no fear. I started passing people — a half dozen people at that late and spread-out stage of the race. One guy followed me for a couple of miles, and later told me he dug as deep as he could to keep up, and still faded. Of course I never set out to "beat" a handful of fellow mid-packers. But I have to say, rather than simply bettering something you're already good at, it's even more satisfying to marginally excel and something you're really bad at. So explains my main motivation for sticking with this running thing as long as I have.

I finished in 19:01, in a race where I seriously doubted my ability to stay in front of a 22-hour cutoff. And the course was even more difficult than I expected — 70 miles of nearly a hundred percent technical singletrack, with about 14,000 feet of climbing, on typical Northeast U.S. grades. The race was mostly filled with experienced locals and race veterans, and even then the finishing rate was fairly low — out of 130 starters, 85 finished. I had a few set-backs as you almost have to in a race that long, but overall I'm happy with how it went down. The scenery was stunning. I really enjoyed spending time with Tim, Rick, Loreen and other Eastern runners. I'll likely end up blabbing further in a full race report, but for now, in my sleepless haze, this is what I remember. Good stuff.